3 Tips for Creating Healthy Toddler Boundaries

Parent Life

For the past three years I’ve been living with at least one toddler. My son, thankfully, is now 4-years-old and no longer considered a toddler. My daughter is 2-years-old and right smack in the worst of the toddler years. How can I tell? “No! I do it!” “No, mine!” Basically anything with NO in front of it is a frequent expression of hers. She also demands to be picked up and walked around…a lot. It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted. Anyone with a toddler is exhausted. Anyone listening to someone with a toddler complain about them is likely exhausted, too.

With Veda’s temper tantrums ramping up and my will to survive chipping away, I know it’s time for a change. I want to enjoy my kids, not just survive them. But how? What do I do? Both my partner and I are former teachers. I hold a master degree. We’ve done what all the books say to do: implement a routine, provide structure, involve them in chores around the house, encourage their independence, etc. Why is this little person still destroying us (well, me mostly)?!?!

And then it clicked one day. Okay, it didn’t happen magically like a thunder bolt of understanding sent from God. It was actually a small piece of advice given to me by a counselor. She told me quite plainly, “you need to set boundaries or you will continue having a hard time and she will struggle more and more as she gets older.” Boom. Just like that. I’d been trying SO HARD to be there and do whatever was needed to raise good humans that I neglected to see that I was the problem. I was too available, too present and tuned in. This was effectively handicapping Veda’s ability to fully see and experience her surroundings, identify her own needs and then vocalize them in an appropriate way. Screaming at me to bend to her demands was all she had ever known because that’s the only option I had given her.

Here are three things I’m currently working on to help transform my toddler monster into a more normal toddler. Sorry, no magic transformations here! She still has her tired, hungry, angry moods just like the rest of us AND she’s still developing her frontal lobe.

#1 | Decide what you want the outcome to be, and hold firm to that.

This seems basic, and when we first had our kids I was overly aware of not ‘giving in’ to cries and tantrums. But somewhere along the way my kids caught on to my methods and started manipulating me. Here’s an example many can relate to…Veda spilled a cup of Cheerios on the ground this morning and refused to pick them up. I looked at the Cheerios spread across my kitchen floor and decided on my desired outcome: Veda will pick those up, not me. I immediately told Veda to pick them up and she looked away. I repeated my command and she walked away from me. Rather than engage in a power struggle and struggle/force her to do it, I went on with what I was doing and waited. About a minute later she came over and asked to be picked up. I said, “no, not until you pick up your Cheerios.” She walked away again. Another minute went by and she came over and asked for a banana. I repeated, “no, not until you pick up your Cheerios.” This pattern repeated a few more times over the span of about 10 minutes. In the end, she begrudgingly picked up her Cheerios (with the help of our family pug, Tucker). There were screams and some tears from her, but I stuck to my desired outcome. After the mess was cleaned I gave her the requested banana and picked her up. In the past I would have gotten impatient, worried about all the Cheerios crumbs likely getting smooshed into the floor cracks, and picked them up myself. The lesson Veda learned would have been, “mom will do it,” instead of “I’m responsible for my own messes.” Had she continued to refuse to pick them up, I likely would have tried to do it jointly while singing the “clean-up, clean-up, everybody do their share” song. This way she still would have some sense of responsibility – much better than me doing 100% of it.

#2 | Pay it forward

One of the biggest triggers for Veda and me is my transition from work to home. I have the flexibility to work remotely and have been doing so for years. However, Veda and Pax have only been working/schooling/playing from home since March. When my work day ends and it’s time to relieve their nanny, Miss Sherri, I just pop up from the basement office and I’m home. Without fail, as soon as I come up the stairs Veda wants in my arms. The screams of “UP! UP! UPPIE!!” would make my stomach sink. Of course, I love holding my daughter and relish any chance I have to get snuggles. But these weren’t cries for snuggles. She wanted up and she wanted to dictate what I would do for the next…10, 15, 30 minutes or longer. Clearly that was not possible. This nearly always led to a giant tantrum and a major anxiety spike in me. Neither of which was how I wanted to start our evenings off.

To get ahead of this tantrum I started something new: when I come up from the basement I greet both kids and immediately start participating in whatever they are currently doing. Whether it is reading books, playing Legos, or watching a show, I would get down on their level and spend time totally immersed in their activity. After a reasonable amount of time, 5-8 minutes, I would quietly excuse myself with a quick, “I’ll be right back” or “I need to start dinner”. No tantrums. No cries of “UP!”. The kids always continue playing OR come along to help me with the next task. Tantrums avoided!

#3 | Follow through on (reasonable) consequences

For the past few months my kids have wanted to sleep in the same room. I think it’s adorable and try to encourage sibling bonding whenever I possibly can. We have moved a sleep mat into my daughter’s room for my son to sleep on. Since naps are still done independently, Pax brings his stuffies, blanket, and pillow over to Veda’s room, with her help, every night. It’s really sweet. While I would love to say that both kids lay in their beds and fall asleep quietly after we say goodnight and turn out the lights, that would be a bold-faced lie. They usually spend anywhere from 30-60 minutes playing in Veda’s room until finding their way back into bed and passing out. It’s all harmless play and my partner and I have decided we are OK with it so long as it remains safe and doesn’t go on too long.

There have been many occasions when the playing hasn’t stopped and an intervention was needed. In the beginning, I was going back upstairs to tell them to be quiet 5 or 6 times with no luck. Each time I would say something along the lines of, “that’s enough, time for bed, go to sleep now or I’m sending Pax back to his room.” You can guess how that worked out for me. Nothing changed until one day I decided to set and then stick to the firm boundary of implementing the threatened consequence. I went up to Veda’s room, gave them a final warning and left. The next time I went up I moved Pax back to his room. It was a loud, screaming-cry fest that neither kid liked. Pax threatened to “just sneak back in” many times and Veda sobbed while calling out for her brother. It was heartbreaking. But I kept replaying my mantra in my head, “I’m making our lives easier in the long run. I’m making our lives easier in the long run.” After a few minutes of me patiently waiting while sitting next to them, both settled down, I would explain the poor choice and the resulting consequence to each kid. They were so tired they passed out shortly afterwards, each in their own beds. The next night at bed time the now familiar routine of moving Pax’s things into Veda’s room would unfold. What changed was my firm, yet loving reminder of the consequence that would be executed if they made bad choices. It’s working so far, just a few days in. I promise to keep you all posted!

Let’s stay in touch!

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